Why can’t Aberdeen win the biggest games?

Why can’t Aberdeen win the biggest games?

By Stevie Grieve

Think of all of the most successful teams in recent history. Now think of all of the teams who over-performed and did things nobody expected them to. Now think of the great Marcelo Bielsa and his style of play without the ball and the phase between attacking and defending.


What do the successful teams have in common? Why have Marcelo Bielsa teams rarely become champions, despite Bielsa being revered as one of the most iconic coaches, who influenced so many of today’s top coaches?


I watch Aberdeen and the main reasons for why they cannot jump into the next level of being able to compete with Celtic, or even beat Rangers, is down to how badly they organise themselves in possession, and out of possession. This seems obvious but let’s get into some detail here.



Joe Lewis plays more long passes, and the Aberdeen back four play more long passes than any team in the league. Might this be a reason why Aberdeen lack control over matches, and struggle to create any semblance of an attacking structure to break down teams who have players of equal or better quality than them?


When we look at Aberdeen defensively, they use a fairly common system in British football – rigid man-marking with no free player – which against better teams and coaches, gets ripped open with ease.


In possession, they are very direct and bypass the midfield. Often they will attack with 1v1s in wide areas which suits the players they have – Gary Mackay-Steven, Ryan Christie, Niall McGinn, etc will be seen operating in wide areas to either dribble past an opponent to enter the box or eliminate an opponent to pass ahead towards a midfield runner into the box.



In the cases of Kenny McLean and Shay Logan, McLean is a competent crosser from deeper positions while Logan will make runs ahead of the ball either to offer a pass into the final third and complete the attack from there, or drag away an opponent to allow space for someone like Christie to dribble inside.


Stevie May might also be found wide against man-marking opponents to drawn an opponent outside the box, which Aberdeen should already know, makes defending the box more difficult.


When Aberdeen try to re-cycle possession, they often look lost as it looks very much like they play ‘patterns’ – which means that each player will know based on the pattern where the ball should go to next. In my opinion, this is not a good way to develop a structure to help build-up play phases as there are six positioning angles that can be taken up, which are constantly moving in align with the four reference points – the ball, space, team mates and opponents. If we only work on patterns, we don’t develop intelligent players, as shown in this image from the defeat away to Rangers in November


Patterns of play: Poor body shape and first touch which kills passing angles to penetrate diagonally


When Anthony O’Connor receives possession, his hips completely turn towards the left side. If he was to receive still facing the Rangers goal, he could play the next pass with his right foot into Andy Considine moving into the space on the opposite side in a central possession. Instead, he turns so far to one side that he is forced to pass back, re-start possession in a bad position, easy to be pressed and goes back to Joe Lewis.



This is not uncommon for Aberdeen – they don’t know how to break a good high press, which will always become a barrier in games where they are inaccurate with long passes, or the ball doesn’t stick in the final third which is commonly a problem with Adam Rooney, who is more of a clinical scorer than target man to develop attacks in the final third. A barrier, which will need to be broken if they are to go beyond the glass ceiling that exists for now until they are better in organised, positional possession phases.


What I would say is that I am a fan of McInnes’ flexibility. Often they will try various ways to defend – sometimes a back three, sometimes a back four, sometimes both in the same game. The problem they have is that they play man-man without a free player to control the space which opens up either behind the defence, between the lines or with the ability to control the centre, which against Celtic is mandatory if you are to compete.


An example of a team using a free player in a man-man marking system very well is Valencia v Villarreal on 5th April 2015 in a 0-0 draw where Javi Fuego filled in the spaces left while the midfield four and back four played 1v1. Atalanta are another team using a variable man-man approach Aberdeen could learn from.


Valencia: DM covering CB during man-marking Atalanta: Shifting horizontally in man-marking


Perhaps these should be situations which people study with the idea to prevent a possession based opponent playing through midfield and attacking third, with control of the central areas.



Anyway, back to Aberdeen’s defensive structure, which is very easy to manipulate: Why is man-man marking easy to manipulate? If I move, I drag you with me, I control the opening and closing of space. The team which controls the space will likely dominate the match and go on to win the game. In the biggest games, Aberdeen rarely have control in or out of possession and this is a big reason why they can’t win.


Man-Marking without central control v Celtic


This is a situation in the opening stage of the match where the middle centre back is able to move forward into midfield unopposed, with both Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong being rigidly followed, even across the field. This leaves space for Moussa Dembele to drop in, draw pressure and open up the space for Callum McGregor to run into. This is a similar situation to the goal where Tom Rogic passes first time around the corner into the run of Dembele who passes across the goal for Kieran Tierney to score in the 13th minute.



Many people will point to the formation a team uses which completely misses the point. The idea of playing man-man is the issue, and the implementation of it isn’t refined enough to make it successful. Imagine a basketball team playing a full court man-man press without rolling subs, for four periods. Is it sustainable, or is it used in short bursts? In football, we have three subs, so playing a system such as this is very difficult to sustain, especially without ‘rest’ periods in possession, which Aberdeen don’t give themselves by playing direct and having no methodical build up to provoke pressure to attack the opponent with a more advantageous situation.


How to improve Aberdeen’s defensive control v Celtic’s 3-2-4-1 system


O’Connor plays as the free man, covering the zone between the lines, picking up Rogic or McGregor as the ball travels. The far side CM (McLean in this situation) leaves his opponent to cover the centre of the field.



The near side CM (Graeme Shinnie), can choose to run past the CM opponent (Armstrong) to press the left foot of Mikael Lustig in build-up to force a wide pass into James Forrest over a long distance, allowing an easy 2v1 trap with May and Considine, who moves out as the ball leaves Lustig. If he starts too high, it can go behind him, which is dangerous if Rogic makes the diagonal run as Considine moves out too early.


Problems v Rangers wide attacks


In the Rangers game where they tried to use a man-marking 3-1-4-2, this was easily exposed by wide runs from central players which completely destroyed any organisation Aberdeen had. They were continually exposed behind Considine marking James Tavernier, who stayed deeper and left the space for runs by Ryan Jack, and Josh Windass – which drew players out of the centre and left Aberdeen vulnerable.



Here, we can see that the only player not marking in the defensive zone is Kari Arnason, who eventually moves out of the box to press Jack, leaving the centre open which leads to the penalty and 1-0 down after six mins. If McLean tracks the run of Jack, then possibly this attack could’ve been prevented but really, starting zonally and pressing man-man would prevent the vast majority of dangerous attacks Aberdeen seem to concede.


By starting with a zonal system, Considine could control the space Jack runs into, a pass to Tavernier could be made then McLean could set a pressing trap on with O’Connor free to allow Christie to jump up to press  Bruno Alves on the expected back pass.



In my opinion, Aberdeen need to improve the build up from Lewis and the back line if they want to be able to compete with Celtic, and completely overhaul how they defend in the most difficult games. The teams who compete at the highest level and succeed play in a zonal block, control the centre, set traps and are comfortable in possession from the back are the ones who have a chance to compete for trophies by winning the biggest games at the sharp end of competition.


Aberdeen need to look at what the key issues are in how they play in the biggest games, be able to beat Celtic and hopefully in turn, get back to having a three-horse race at the top of Scottish football.

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